Come with us to the Gothic Route of Spiš!

The region of Spiš – in German Zips, in Hungarian Szepesség – was one of the most peculiar regions of ancient Hungary, with many languages and traditions, inhabited by Saxons or Zipsers, Hungarians, Slovaks, two kinds of Rusyns – Lemkos and Boykos – Jews, Poles, Gorals, Gypsies and the scattered representatives of many other peoples. Some parts of it simultaneously belonged to Hungary and Poland, while the complex administrative relations of others gave a hard time even to Tranquillius, the author of the Pangea blog, who wrote twice about them, and who will also come with us. Its Renaissance towns lay in the embrace of a stunning nature, surrounded by the Slovak Paradise, the Spiš, Beskid and Vihorlat Mountains, the gorges of the Hornád and Dunajec rivers. However, its biggest treasure are the multitude of Gothic triptychs and murals preserved in the town and village churches. On their unique richness was established the Gothic Route through Slovakia, which we will follow during our five-day tour.

We start from Budapest by bus on 26 August, Friday, and come back on 30 August, Tuesday. Going up through Košice and descending through the Branisko Pass, in five days we go around the Spiš Mountains. We visit the most beautiful Gothic triptychs and frescoes, and tour the richest Renaissance merchant’s towns. We hike in the Hornád Canyon and boat on timber-raft on the Dunajec river. We go up with a century-old tram to the Tatras, and on foot to the Spiš Castle. We dinner in traditional Slovak restaurants and roast meat on campfire.

Participation fee for the five days: 370 euro/person (accommodation with breakfast and dinner, autobus, guide). Registration until 26 July at

Friday, 26 August. Budapest – Košice – Branisko Pass – Žehra – Spišská Kapitula – Spišské Podhradie

At 8 a.m. we start by bus from Budapest. In Košice we’ll have an unconventional sightseeing: inner courtyards and passages, the memories of forgotten and suppressed stories. Lunch at the same place. We stop at the Branisko Pass, from where the panorama of Spiš opens up for the first time. In Žehra we admire the frescoes of the 13th-century village church, and then the Gothic triptychs of Spišská Kapitula, the religious center of the region (both World Heritage sites). Our accommodation is directly below Spiš Castle (World Heritage site). In the late afternoon we will climb up here to watch sunset.

Saturday, 27 August. Spišské Podhradie – Vítkovce – Hornád Gorge – Levoča – Dravce – Spišský Štvrtok – Spišská Sobota

In the morning we hike – on an easy terrain, about two hours there and back – to one of the most beautiful sites of the Slovak Paradise, the Tamásfalva Lookout (Tomášovský výhľad), emerging above the Hornád Gorge, with a breathtaking view on the canyon, the two mountains separated by them, and the High Tatras beyond the Spiš Mountains. We recover from the fatigues of the tour with sightseeing and lunch in Levoča (World Heritage site). On the way there, we stop at the Gothic church of Vítkovce, to see the 14th-century fresco cycle of St. Ladislas. In the afternoon we also stop at the Gothic churches and triptychs of Dravce and Spišský Štvrtok. Our accommodation on this and the next two nights will be on the charming Renaissance main square of Spišská Sobota, where we also look around, and in the main church we visit the second most beautiful Gothic triptych of Spiš.

Sunday, 28 August. Tatranská Lomnica – Poprad – Veľká Lomnica – Kežmarok – Hrabušice

Most luckily, this is the only Sunday of the month, when the Poprad – Tatra tram runs with century-old wagons. We book tickets well in advance (a group can have a separate wagon), and drive up to Tatranská Lomnica, the former popular holiday resort of the aristocracy and high bourgeoisie of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. We will come back to Poprad just in time to see the unique frescoes of the Romanesque St. Egidius church, open only for the midday Mass. After lunch, we go to Veľká Lomnica, where we see another fresco cycle of St. Ladislas, and a recently discovered Last Judgement fresco, and from there to the Renaissance town of Kežmarok. We look around in the town, visit the Thököly castle, the Gothic Holy Cross church, and the Lutheran wooden church (World Heritage site). And in order not to be left without a beautiful triptych on this day either, on the way back we will stop at the medieval church of Hrabušice.

Monday, 29 August. Podolín – Stará Ľubovňa – Red Monastery – Dunajec Gorge – Niedzica Castle

We go up to the Polish border, and even beyond. Along the way we stop in Podolín, at the house of the great Art Nouveau author Gyula Krúdy, and we climb up to the abandoned Jewish cemetery, from where we have a magnificent panorama on the city and the northern Carpathians. In Stará Ľubovňa we go up to the castle, and visit the open air museum of wooden architecture next to it. On the Polish border, at the Red Monastery we will sail on timber-raft through the gorge of the border river Dunajec, and we will go over to the neighbor, the castle of Niedzica towering on the shores of Lake Czorsztyński.

Tuesday, 30 August. Bardejov – Prešov – Budapest

Continuing the route of the previous day, we reach Bardejov, which is not a part of Spiš, but as it is the most important Gothic town of the area, we would have no complete picture of the region without visiting it. We look around on the main square, and visit the wonderful triptych ensemble of the St. Egidius church. We go to see the two synagogues, which were saved from destruction by the diligence of an enthusiastic local engineer, Uncle Cyril, “the only Lutheran Jew”, as he calls himself. We visit the museum of Rusyn icons, the most beautiful collection of this charming rustic version of icon painting. After lunch, we start back to Budapest.

A shtetl tour in Galicia

Galícian Jewish family, 1930’s

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed book and movie Everything is illuminated, a small Odessa travel agency, a family-run company operating with one trabant undertakes the task of leading American Jews, searching for their Galician roots, to the former shtetls of their grandparents. The trabant, starting at the Lviv train station, soon turns off the highway onto a dirt road. From then on, a series of absurd misadventures follow one another until we reach the place where everything is illuminated.

The movie (directed by Liev Schreiber, 2005, see here) has always been a paradigm for the travels of río Wang, during which we leave behind the beaten path and seek encounters with the marvels of the East, the hidden small towns, the forgotten stories. But this is the first time we organize a journey in the same region where the film takes place, the former Jewish shtetls of the Ukraine. For many years we have roamed about this region, many times we have written about it, and we have organized a few tours to its western half, Polish Galicia. Now it is time to open up the Jewish world of Eastern Galicia, the “deep Galicia”, the birthplace of Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz, Agnon and Paul Celan. Perhaps for the first time ever in this still recently isolated and less known country.

The film also has something more to teach. Due to our cultural conventions, we distinguish between sublime and tragic ruins. We consider the vanishing sites of past life either as messengers of a rich history, or of a tragedy. At the sight of the former, like Roman monuments, we think about the life that once took place there. At the latter, of the tragedy that brought an end to this life. The surviving relics of Eastern European Jewish shtetls, the cemeteries, the synagogues, the Jewish streets are clearly allotted in the latter group. Nevertheless, much more important than their destruction is the life which thrived here for centuries, which lives on in many forms, of which we are heirs. And which can be revived. Just as the film’s Trachimbrod is not only the stone erected in place of the destroyed shtetl, but also the house where all its memories are collected and where the former life vividly lives on. By traveling around the shtetls of Eastern Galicia, we also want to make this life visible again.

Ukraine is a large country, almost inconceivably large to us. The settlements are far apart, we will travel long hours in the gently rolling landscape, between endless wheat fields and forests, and along large rivers, just like in the film. This journey from shtetl to shtetl is part of the experiencing. It helps to understand the importance the small inhabited places in an uninhabited region, the weight of the distances, which the merchant and the traveler had to cover, when carrying wood from Verkhovina to Czernowitz or wine from Tokaj to Bolechów. Along the way, we will only stop at some prominent places, where enough sights have been preserved. However, all along the journey we will also hear stories about the other shtetls, where there is nothing to see any more, but which once were living links in the large net of Jewish settlements stretching from Pskov to Sighetu Marmației.

The tour lasts from 20 to 26 August, Saturday to Thursady. The participation fee is 400 euro, which includes accommodation (the half of a double room, with breakfast), the bus and the guide. You can register at

Paul Cantelon: Odessa Medley The travel motif of the movie Az Everything is illuminated (2005)

Day 1. Budapest – Yasinia

In the afternoon we arrive to Yasinia, the ancient border of the Hungarian Kingdom, in whose railway station in July and August 1941, seventy-five years ago, the Hungarian authorities handed over twenty thousand “stateless” Jews to the German authorities in the frames of an immigration procedure. Along the way, we will visit the still working synagogue of Hust, will have at the center of Europe, and will travel along the Beregovo-Yasinia railway line, which has been dead for half a century. That day or the next morning we will walk up in the hills abov the town, to the Jewish cemetery.

“Kőrösmező [Yasinia]. Rafter’s prayer on the arrival of dam water”, from here

Day 2. Yasinia – Czernowitz

After crossing the Yablonka Pass, we travel through Verkhovina, the land of the Hutsuls, whose central town, Kolomea was once a major city of the Galician Jews. At the border between Galicia and Bukovina, we stop at the beautiful cemeteries of Kuty and Vizhnitsa – important Hasidic communities –, and then reach Czernowitz, the “Jerusalem along the Prut”, the most Jewish city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We walk aroun the city, and go out to Sadagóra, to the palace of the Tsaddik of Ruzhin.

“Reb Burech drinks toast” on the stage of the Jewish theater of Czernowitz, from here

Day 3. Czernowitz – Tarnopol

Along a winding road, through many important shtetls we reach Tarnopol, the other center of the Galician Jews. We stop, among others, in Czortków, the cradle of the Hasidim of Teleki tér in Budapest, in Buczacz, the birthplace of Nobel Prize winner Agnon, and the Freud family, in Halich, with a still existing Galician Karaite population, and in Rohatyn, the birthplace of the wife of Great Suleiman, Roxana.

Klezmer musicians of Rohatyn, mainly the Faust family, 1912

Day 4. Tarnopol – Lemberg

We travel to the north, parallel to the eastern border of Galicia and the Monarchy. We stop in Brody, one of the most important trading cities and the Galician center of Jewish Enlightenment, from where Joseph Roth and the Bródy family of important Hungarian writers come. Here we turn back to the west, in the direction of Lemberg. In addition to the shtetls, we visit Podkamień, one of the most important Polish pilgrimage monasteries, and to the royal castle of Olesko as well. In the afternoon we have a walk in the center of Lemberg.

The border of the Monarchy and Russia at Brody, 1910

Day 5. Lemberg

A full-day sightseeing in Lemberg: Jewish and Armenian neighborhoods, Renaissance main square, Art Nouveau suburb, the “Krakauer Vorstadt”, the Jewish slum. This day begins the Lviv summer music festival, which previously was a Klezmer festival, but from this year is extended into a world music festival.

On the market of Lemberg, 1910

Day 6. Lemberg – Budapest

Along the way home, we stop in Drohobycz, Bruno Schulz’s birthplace, which at the turn of the century became a beautiful Art Nouveau small town from the wealth of the Galician oil fields, as well as in Bolechów, the Galician centre of Tokaj wine trade. Here, in the beautiful Hasidic cemetery lays Rabbi Ber Dov of Bolechów, who in the 18th century was one of the most important links between the Jews of Galicia and Hungary. Our Galician shtetl tour ends with the visit of his grave.

Hasidic rabbi and his followers in the Carlsbad spa, 1930’s

Wang tours till the end of the year

The tours of río Wang in the first half of the year have successfully ended. We went to Prague and Sardinia, Lemberg and Kurdistan, Georgia and Armenia. Now we are in full swing to prepare the tours of the second half of the year, to no less exotic places. In our annual program we have written about all future journeys, but we will soon publish detailed cost and itinerary plans about each of them. If you want to immediately receive news about them, sign up for our newsletter at!

Between 20-25 August we will visit the former Jewish shtetls of Eastern Galicia, from Czernowitz through Brody to Lemberg. We have just traveled along the route and fixed the accommodations. The exact travel plan and expenses will be published on 15 July.

Between 26 and 30 August we organize a tour to the medieval towns of Spíš/Zips/Szepesség in Northeastern Slovakia, the most beautiful Gothic monuments of medieval Hungary. Here, we just finish the organization, and the exact cost and travel plan is expected at 17 July.

The memorial tour of the literary bestseller Traveler and Moonlight through Umbria and Toscana had so many fans, that we have to organize it in two rounds. The first tour in 2-8 September will be repeated on 9-15 September. We’re going out there to coordinate hotels, and we will publish the cost and travel plan on 25 July.

In October, we organize three consecutive tours to Iran. The first one, from 30 September to 7 October, is a small photo tour to the evergreen mountains of Gilan, on the shore of the Kaspian See, and of Northern Azerbaijan, “the Iranian Switzerland”, the land of the Talish and Shahshavan nomads. The second one, between 8 and 15 October, in the week of Iran’s greatest feast Ashura, leads us through the historical cities of Iran, from Kashan through Isfahan, Yazd, Persepolis and Shiraz, to Tehran. The third one, between 16 and 23 October, travels through the breathtakingly beautiful Iranian desert, the many-thousand-year-old towns fed by the underground canal system, from Kashan down to Kerman. The three tours complement and closely follow each other, so that anyone could participate in two or three of them, as many of you had notified us. We go out to organize the hotels and transport in early August, and we will publish the detailed cost plan and roadmap until 15 August.

In our last tour, from 2 to 6 November, we will visit the historical cities of Southern Czechia. The route will follow the one we did in 2014, our accommodations also will be in the same places, we just have to find out the possible price changes. On the basis of that, we will publish the exact cost plan and roadmap until 15 August.

Many of you have asked us to lead again a tour to Maramureș, which did not figure in this year’s plan. For this, the period between 29 October and 1 November seems to be the best, the period of the traditional “lighting”, when the mountain take on their beautiful autumn colors, and the village cemeteries shine in the light of thousand of candles. At this time, the traveler is called in everywhere to drink a glass of plum brandy in memory of the deceased ones.

We ask your readers, that if you have already registered for a trip, please confirm it, and if you have not yet, then tell us about your intention to participate in it until the end of this week, 17 July, at, so we could see how many participants to expect for which tours. This is still a “no liability” registration. Only after we publish a tour with a detailed route and exact cost plan, will we ask for final and irrevocable registrations.


Vitkovce / Witkensdorf / Vitfalva, Spíš / Zips / Szepesség, Slovakia

Slaves of God

“Is everyone a slave?” asked the little boy timidly.
“Everyone”, nodded Frater Sicarius.
“Even the king?”
“Yes, even the king.”
“Whose slave is the king?”
“A slave of the country.”
“Are we also slaves?”
“Yes, we are.”
“Whose slaves are we?”
“Slaves of God, my little frater.”

Géza Gárdonyi: Slaves of God (1908)
If you travel from Armenia to Karabagh or Iran, and you arrive to the region of Syunik, which stretches down as a long corridor to the Persian border, you will see the three-thousand-meter-high mountain range of Zangezur rising in front of you as a wall. Here, on the 2,347-meter high Vorotan Pass, the troops of Generals Andranik and Nzhdeh stopped the Bolsheviks in November 1920, and here for eight months they defended the border of the last bastion of Armenian independence, the Republic of Mountainous Armenia. Here had been for a half century the border of Zangezur Uyezd, which was then divided by Stalin between Armenia and Azerbaijan, after its western half was cleansed by the troops of General Andranik of the hundred-thousand-strong Muslim population. Since the Karabagh war, its eastern part is also under Armenian control, and the Zangezur Muslims, who fled from there in 1919, now live in refugee housing estates around Baku.

Beyond the Vorotan Pass springs the river, which the former inhabitants of Zangezur, each in their own language, called Vorotan, Bazarçay, or Bargushad, meaning “wide land” in Persian. On the river, which, flowing through Syunik and Karabagh, discharges into the Iranian border river Araxes, in 1954 they began building the Vorotan Cascade. The cascade, which, since its completion in 1989, has reduced by half the oil import needs of Armenia, consists of three hydroelectric power plants and five reservoirs. The first, immediately over Vorotan Pass, is the Spandaryan reservoir. Although only seven kilometers long and three kilometers wide, its depth is seventy-three meters. The Vorotan river, only a narrow stream up here, once flowed at the bottom of a dizzyingly deep valley.

Today only the highest point of the valley emerges from the lake. A hill upon which, from the top all the way down to the lake shore, old gravestones stand in rows, like old forgotten soldiers. Each looks towards the lake, as if awaiting from there a command that will never more resound. On the gravestones, as if sprouting in the field like the wildflowers surrounding them, varied stone flowers, trees of life, fruit-like stars appear. They lack only one motif: the cross. Nevertheless, those who erected them had to be very religious people. Almost all the inscriptions introduce the name of the deceased with the same formula, from the 1840s in Old Slavonic language, and from the 1920s onwards more and more in Russian: Здѣсь пакоитсѧ тела раба Божіѧ…, “Here lies the body of the slave of God…”

What might this village using the Old Slavonic language have been, here, in the remote Armenian-Tatar countryside? Spandaryan, which gave its name to the reservoir, is fifteen kilometers away, only the dam is there. The other three nearby villages, Sarnakunk, Tsghuk and Gorayk all fall outside the edge of the valley, they would not have their cemetery here. I turn for help to the Атлас офицера, the top-secret Soviet military atlas of 1947, purchased in the Lemberg flea market. Although this only contains a small-scale map of the Caucasus, which at the beginning of the Cold War was not considered a primary area of operations, it still displays in this place a settlement which no long exists: Базарчай.

And the obelisk, standing on the hilltop at the shore of the lake, with the date ԿԱՌՈՒՑՎԵԼԷ 1968, karrutsvele 1968, “erected in 1968” on its top, also proclaims in its inscription looking toward the lake:


Haverzh p’arrk’
Hayrenakan Paterazmum zohvats
Bazarch’ay gyughi rrazmiknerin

“Eternal glory
to the soldiers of Bazarchay village
fallen in the Great Patriotic War.”

The name of Bazarchay village is the same as the Azeri-Turkish name of the Vorotan river, which at first reading seems to mean “bazaar river”. However, in this case the chay compound does not mean “river”, as in other Turkish geographical names, but “tea”. The village was in fact the center of tea trade in the Southern Caucasus, that’s why it was called “Tea Bazaar”. Tea was brought here from Georgia, and it was sold here to the Muslim population, which used it in a strong brew for pain relief, or even as a drug. And this trade was organized by the ethnic group which lived in small clusters all over the region, from Georgia through Armenia to Karabagh: the Russian-speaking Molokans.

The Molokans have been mentioned in the Russian sources since the late 15th century. They call themselves “Spiritual Christians”, who proclaim a return to the teachings of the early church, and a personal relationship with God. In a society, where from the monarch down everyone is a servant, they seek freedom by positioning themselves outside of this hierarchy, and considering themselves immediately “slaves of God”. They reject a number of requirements of the Orthodox church, the mediating role of the clergy, the icons and the representation of the cross. Their name comes from Russian молоко, “milk”, and it means “milk-drinker”, as during Lent, when the Orthodox church also forbids the consumption of dairy products, they merely abstain from meat. Due to their disciplined community life and work ethic, they have been also called “the Protestants of the East”. From the persecutions of the Russian state church, they drew to the peripheries of the empire. This was also supported by the state, because in this way they played a major role in the clearing of virgin lands. After 1825, more than a hundred thousand of them migrated to the Caucasus. Their history was written in detail by N. B. Breyfolge in Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus (2005).

Molokan settlers in the Caucasian Mugan Steppe. Photo by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky between 1905 and 1915

The Molokans who settled in Zangezur – in the villages of Bazarchay and the neighboring Borisovka (today Tsghuk) –, in Karabagh, and in Kars, which until 1917 was under Russian control, belonged to the Charismatic “Jumpers” (прыгуны), who at their meetings gatherings glorified the Holy Spirit with self-abandoned singing and dancing. A five-hundred-strong group of them, which emigrated in 1902 from Kars to America, settled on the “Russian Hill” of San Francisco, where even Ilf and Petrov met them, as described in their American travel diary. On the Molokans once living around Kars, an acclaimed feature film was made in 2009 by Murat Saraçoğlu, and a beautiful documentary one year earlier by Yalçın Yelence. This helps to imagine the life once flourishing in the valley of Bazarchay.

The history of the Bazarchay Molokans was summed up by Hamlet Mirzoyan  in the 2012/8 issue of Ноев Ковчег (Noah’s Ark). His most important source was the handwritten notebook История наших предков (The History of our Ancestors), composed around 1910 by the local V. N. Telegin, which was also published in transcription on the site. According to this, the first Molokan settler, Gurei Petrovich Petrov arrived here in 1831 with his wife from Tambov, the traditional center of the Molokans. In 1836 some new families arrived from Dudakchi and Aladin villages in Karabagh, and in 1877 fifty families from Bolludja in Karabagh.

According to the Venetian Mechitarist monk and ethnographer Ghevont Alishan (1820-1901), who in 1893 published his detailed description on „Sisakan”, today’s Syunik province, the local Molokans were industrious and prosperous. Every house was built of stone, each family had at least fifty cows, four or five mules, and a hundred sheep. In addition, they bred trout in small reservoirs along the river. Their oxen were well-fed, their carts huge. According to the census of 1886, 469 people – 241 men and 228 women – lived here in 78 well-built houses, not counting children under the age of ten. Unlike the surrounding villages, they bake their bread not in Caucasian tonirs, but in Russian ovens. Due to the strong mountain winds blowing from the pass, the windows of their houses are small, and all face east.

The American traveler George Kennan toured the Caucasus in the 1870s. Then he compiled (not from his own pictures, but rather from locally purchased photographs, including those by Dmitry Ermakov) the collection Caucasus: An album of photographs, now preserved in the New York Public Library. This includes three photos on the Caucasian Molokans. The first one was perhaps, and the second and third one certainly made by Ermakov.

The inscription of the gravestone in the foreground to the right: “1878 г. 12 апреля. Здесь покоится тело страдальца Давыда Евсеевича. Страдал за Дух Святой 50 лет. Помер волею Божиею. Жил 70 лет” (“12 April 1878. Here lies the body of the sufferer David Evseevich. He suffered fifty years for the Holy Spirit. He died by God’s will. He lived 70 years.”). Telegin tells about him in his handwritten notebook: “David Evseevich, our renowned spiritual ruler… was taller than average, of a manly stature. He had a gray beard, similar to the beard of King David, as he is portrayed in Psalm books. He never raised his voice, he did not excel in verbiage. He wore a simple blue jacket and a simple hat. … At the gatherings, he only read the Bible and the psalms, and he prayed, but he never “jumped” or prophesied. … Everyone respected and loved him, mainly for his goodness.”

In July 1921, when the Bolsheviks broke through the Vorotan Pass, the Bazarchay Molokans received them with bread and salt, and many young people joined them to fight together against the Armenian troops of General Nzhdeh, retreating towards Persia. In the following years, the Molokans received in reward what the Armenians got in punishment. Their leaders were arrested, their prayer houses demolished, their stones scattered. In the years of the Stalinist terror, part of the community was deported to Siberia. Many locals denied their faith or fled to Russia. Their places were taken by others: beginning in the 1960s, the gravestones of the cemetery gradually become Armenian. The last Molokan woman of Bazarchay died in 1978, two years before the flooding of the village. At her funeral, her nephew living in the Ukrainian town of Vinnitsa, Colonel Mikhail Seraphimovich Begas, gave an eulogy not only over her, but over the entire Molokan community: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will send a famine on the land. Not a famine of bread, and not a thirst of water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).

Pirosmani: Singing Molokans, Tiflis, c. 1910

George Gurdjieff (1866-1949), Armenian-Greek-Russian folk music collector, composer and philosopher: Molokan Songs. Performed on piano by Thomas de Hartmann

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